Fire is a monster, a girl so beautiful that she can mesmerise and influence those around her. She is the daughter of another monster, Cansrel, who used his abilities to the detriment of others and was the downfall of King Nax. Fire is determined not to follow her father down the same path. But war is coming to the Dells and Fire must decide whether she uses her talents to help King Nash, son of Nax. The commander of the army, Prince Brigan, has very personal reasons for distrusting Cansrel's daughter; her childhood friend Archer wants to keep her locked away from the men and monsters who constantly attack her; and Fire is unable to even answer one simple question: why does she exist?
Fire is set in a different kingdom to Graceling, one where magic manifests in the form of brightly coloured and mesmerising monsters. There are human monsters and animal and bug monsters, all with a taste for each others flesh. War is about to break out in the Dells and King Nash and his twin brother and sister wish Fire to help them gather intelligence by bringing prisoners before her to interrogate. But everywhere Fire goes are the giant raptors trying to kill her and the men of the Dells trying to attack her. Cashore quickly creates a sense of claustrophobia about Fire that negates any desire for the reader to envy her for her beauty; rather, the reader feels empathy and a strong hope for her happiness.
There's a wonderful scene early on in the book when Prince Brigan rides out with a contingent of men. They must get to the tunnels and away to where a village is being raided, but between the palace and the safety of the tunnels hundred of murderous raptors have gathered because of Fire, and they begin to attack the army. Bringing up the rear and in the most vulnerable position is Brigan. Full well knowing that Brigan hates the sight of her and that the raptors will attack her as soon as she appears, Fire rides out to distract them from the army, against everyone's wishes. It's a breathtaking scene and one that hooked me into the story. It promised everything I was hoping for: complexity, adventure, romance and a strong female lead.
Cashore follows through with each of her promises, bar one. There is a huge build up of tension between Fire and Brigan but I was somewhat let down in the end. I don't require romance in every book I read, but if the author goes out of her way to set up a huge rift between two romantically involved characters and it fizzles, I get very upset. Especially (and perhaps this is unfair) after Katsa and Po, the two characters from Graceling who were executed perfectly. (And for the girls like me who tend to fall in love with the male leads and like to argue endlessly about who is more worthy of their love, whom do I love more, Po or Brigan? The answer is Brigan. Though it's a difficult choice. Po is a darling. And probably better in the long-term. But who cares about the long-term when you have a crush!)
Silliness aside, it's the characters and the wonderful complexity of the story that make Cashore's books a delight to read. Fire would have gotten an all out rave review from me if it wasn't for the fizzle, but the romance was just one aspect of the story. The rest was amazing. Cashore will undoubtedly revive the fantasy romance genre which has been flagging of late, which I am very pleased about as that's what I love to read. And that's also what I write.
Cover notes: The UK/Australian one wipes the floor with the US one. I gasped when I opened the box, I really did.